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Rise of the Planet of the Apes

by Yoda
posted on 8/18/11
The saving grace of Hollywood tropes is that, when they become pervasive enough, more thoughtful writers and directors can have fun subverting them. And here, after decades of tales warning us about the overreach of technology and the likelihood that we will create machines that overthrow us, is a tale of the opposite: not a technological enemy, but a biological one. An insurrection not from aliens in the sky, or the machines around us, but from beneath. An inversion of the natural order.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is still, of course, a warning about human ambition and another cinematic illustration of the adage that "man's reach exceeds his grasp." But the playful inverting of the well-worn idea that humanity will engineer its own overlords out of metal is just one of many present. The only thing more pervasive than the symmetry are the simians.

The story, briefly, is that Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) has, in the course of trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's, created a drug that not only repairs the degenerating brain but improves on it. But an escaped test subject—who goes bananas at the worst possible time—triggers the drug company's risk-averse reflex, and the program is shut down. This involves eliminating the apes it's being tested on, though Rodman can't bring himself to put down a newborn and brings it home instead. Then, he lets his ailing father (who has the disease) name it. He names it Caesar. This is a classic mistake; never let them name it.

Caesar (sorta-kinda played by Andy Serkis, who appears to have convinced everyone in Hollywood that he's the only person allowed to do motion capture) is smarter than your average ape, and probably your average human, too. Which means inevitably there will be misunderstandings, separation, and interspecies insurgence. You can't title a film Rise of the Planet of the Apes without giving away the fact that there'll be some bad apes-a-risin' at some point. But the clever silence about whether or not this is a prequel, a remake, or a reboot (or some confusing mix of the three) gives the film considerable latitude about the specifics. Like J.J. Abrams' Star Trek fresh start, it has all the advantages and familiarities of an existing franchise without any of the constraints.

How delightful and rare to find a film that understands the value in superficially lowering the stakes; in telling a story exactly the size it is prepared to fill, and foregoing the hollow impersonation of scope you get from the eradication of increasingly prominent landmarks. This is a character-centric story where the animals have more humanity than most other films' humans. No small part of the credit goes to the effects team, which has created entirely believable apes that react and emote in sometimes heartbreaking, always impressive ways.

One always gets the impression that the story has been tremendously thought through. The parallels are elegant, the symbolism is broad and meaningful, and the actual mechanics of the uprising, and the external factors that point towards how it might realistically secure a foothold, are all surprisingly plausible. And plausible is above and beyond the call in a film that most people will gladly suspend their disbelief for, anyway.

This is not a story of good and evil, but of actions and consequences. It's a story in which the threat is not the enemy, and is all the more dangerous because of it. It is not for nothing that the film's climactic battle takes place not only on a bridge, but in the fog. Or, more specifically, in a small break in the fog, obscuring for both species not only what's in front of them, but the mistakes behind them that would have served as its only warning.

As for where the series goes, if anywhere, I can illustrate my preference with the following anecdote: my mother-in-law, many years ago, went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey in theaters. After the now famous jump cut from skeleton to space station, the film entered a period of storytelling ennui with scant dialogue or action. A boy in the theater, who apparently had no idea what kind of movie he had asked his parents to take him to, lost his patience 30 minutes in, stood up, and yelled "Bring back the monkeys!" At the end of this film, I was tempted to do the same.